While it is no surprise that the biggest loser from Germany's catastrophic flirtation with admitting over a million Syrian refugees in 2015 has been Angela Merkel, and her ruling CDU party, both of which have seen their popular support in the polls tumble, one clear winner has emerged: Germany's anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which is running neck-and-neck with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania ahead of a vote on Sunday. What makes this vote particularly sensitive for Angela Merkel is that this it takes place in her home state.
According to the latest shock poll, released late on Wednesday, the AfD is leading the CDU by 23 percent to 20 percent, with the Social Democrats, who currently run the rural state in coalition with Merkel’s party, at 28 percent support. What’s more, according to Bloomberg the AfD’s recent history in regional votes suggests it will perform better on election day than predicted in polls.
Merkel's center-right coalition of conservatives and pro-business Free Democrats has suffered a slump in support this year due to growing discontent over Merkel's handling of the euro crisis and because of turmoil in the FDP, under fire for its perceived poor record in government. The parties suffered a major blow in March when they lost power in the large south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, a CDU bastion for over half a century.
Sunday's vote will mark the start of a tough month for the chancellor. It will be followed on Sept. 18 by a regional election in Berlin, where the CDU is trailing the SPD and has virtually no hope of winning power.
Opinion polls suggest that SPD governor Erwin Sellering will remain in power and that his party will get enough votes to be able to choose its coalition partner. That means the CDU, whose support is projected to be lower than its 2006 result of 28.8 percent, may be ousted from government in the state.
The success and startling surge in the AfD's popularity rival that of Donald Trump. The tension is familiar to all who have been following Europe's refugee crisis: the local electorate’s grievances with the ruling CDU range from the chancellor’s hallmark policies, from refugees to sanctions on Russia to the country’s energy overhaul, and the AfD is capitalizing on that discontent. Furthermore, as a nationalist party that has firmly voiced an anti-immigrant position, it has capitalized extensively on the spike in popular anger against Germany's refugee influx, the direct result of Merkel's "open door" policies.
Just over a year ago, polls indicated that the CDU was poised to retake the state. But the AfD, founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party, has wiped away that lead with appeals that include securing the border, setting up a citizen police force and curbing the use of English in the German language. At an AfD polling stand in Ribnitz-Damgarten, townspeople crowded around to sift through the party’s pamphlets as just a few blocks away Merkel held a closed-door gathering with hand-selected participants.
Just like without Obama there would be no Trump, so “without Mrs. Merkel, there would be no AfD,” Leif-Erik Holm, the party’s candidate for state premier, said in an interview. “She has led her Christian Union from the center to the left so that middle-class, conservative values are no longer represented."
While Merkel's home state does not suffer directly from an influx of migrants - the number of foreign-born people in the state of 1.6 million last year reached just 65,000 or about 4 percent of the population - the topic of refugees has become a touchstone for voter disaffection in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which isn’t home to a single company in Germany’s benchmark DAX and has the country’s lowest GDP per capita. The state’s unemployment rate is 9 percent, compared with 6.1 percent nationally.
One economic bright spot has been in the agricultural sector, which benefited from exports to Russia thanks to longstanding ties dating back to Communist rule. Those sales have come to halt as a result of the sanctions and many local farmers blame Merkel for their woes. The AfD is campaigning for an end to the curtailments.
“‘We have a few green shoots in terms of exports and some success in the food industry,” Holm said. “In cheese production, for example, we have exported a lot to Russia and this has now slumped.”
As such, the vote against Merkel is, like in the case of Brexit, a popular vote against an establishment system by a group of people who feel they have been let down. Rural, poor and peripheral, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is an outlier in more than just political terms, and in any case polls suggest that the SPD and CDU will garner enough support for a rerun of their coalition of the past decade.
Still, defeat in her home state by the AfD would prove a political embarrassment for Merkel, and likely reignite grumblings about her refugee policies among some in her bloc.
The chancellor looked on in frustration in March as the AfD, which is shunned by the political establishment, won support in three state elections, including almost a quarter of the vote in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. In the last year, CDU support has also dropped in Berlin while the AfD has gained. The city-state holds its regional vote Sept. 18.
To be sure, Merkel is aware how bad a defeat on Sunday would look and has been doing everything in her power to offset it. She has campaigned hard to win back support, crisscrossing Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in recent weeks, with a final push scheduled for this Saturday. Yet ironically, she’s adopted a law-and-order tone at rallies, calling for a larger police force and “more video surveillance of public spaces", precisely the things potential voters loathe the most. Just as inexplicably, she’s doubled-down on the question of refugees, refusing to step back from her “we can do this” slogan adopted last year as 1 million asylum seekers poured into the country. Her opponents have ridiculed the remarks as naïve.
The CDU must stand by its values, from its opposition to “xenophobia and racism” to its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Merkel said in Mecklenburg’s capital of Schwerin on Monday, warning that if turnout is low, “then the parties with more extreme tendencies will have greater results.”
Meanwhile, just like Trump is shunned by the establishment in the US, so the AfD faves the same fate in Germany. Michael Grosse-Broemer, the chief parliamentary whip of Merkel’s CDU bloc in the lower house of parliament, lashed out at the AfD on Thursday in Berlin. "The AfD is in no way a traditional party, but rather a pure protest party," he told journalists. "Everything else in terms of concrete results, we’ll have to wait."
What the whip does not seem to get is that like in Germany, so in the UK and the US, increasingly more people are sick of politics as usual, and are happy to adopt a "pure protest party" if it means an overhaul in a broken system. Case in point, while Merkel's CDU still leads in all national polls, her personal approval rating has plunged, dropping 12 percentage points in an August survey to 47 percent. As we reported previously, 50% of Germans don’t want her to seek a fourth term in national elections next year.
Meanwhile, her finmin Wolfgang Schauble, who has been also campaigning for her, said he and Merkel took concerns about refugees seriously, before offering a rebuttal that integrating those who’ve come to the country is the best path forward and reminding those present that millions of Muslims already call Germany home. “It’s much better if those who live here, whose children and grandchildren have lived here for a long time and have grown up here, feel well at home here and join in,” Schaeuble said.
“This is Angela Merkel’s policy and mine.”
Actually, thanks to hackers, we now know that it is as much Merkel's as that of George Soros. Luckily for Soros, his fate is not on the line this Sunday; for Merkel, however, her distinguished political career may be about to suffer a very premature end; although we are confident that the Open Society or some other Soros foundation is hiring...